What is our definition of God's identity? What does that definition tell us about how our faith functions? Do we envision a God who is loving and inclusive? Or a God who is narrow and exclusive. There are, as Bruce notes, altar calls (come to Jesus events) and what he calls "alter calls" where our vision of God is altered. That is what he sees happening in Brian McLaren's book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? (Jericho Books, 2012). I invite you to read and consider how your encounter with God might be an altering experience.
A Theological Alter Call
Bruce G. Epperly
I was raised in a religious environment where altar calls, “come to Jesus” moments, were offered on a regular basis. As a matter of fact, I “came forward” and accepted Jesus as my Savior at a summer revival meeting held at our Salinas Valley (California) Baptist Church now over 50 years ago. Presumably, we Baptists needed to be revived on a regular basis! My faith has evolved since, but that revival experience is still pivotal for my religious experience. I still believe we need revival; we need new and lively, more inclusive and faithful, images of God in a pluralistic age.
In his Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, andMohammed Cross the Road? Brian McLaren proposes a different kind of revival – an “alter” call – not just an altar call - that invites us to explore, revise, and “alter” our images of God, when they are found to lead to violence rather than hospitality among the world’s religions. The statement “by your fruits, you shall know them applies to doctrine as well as horticulture.” And, some doctrines have led to bitter and poisonous fruit. According to McLaren, “We do not invite people to another religious altar where another hostile deity can be appeased by another list of protocols, thus engendering another set of hostilities. No, we invite people to alter their understanding of God, to come to know God as revealed in the human-kindness of Jesus Christ.” (263) Following the insights of Diana Butler Bass, McLaren affirms that “doctrine” and “doctor” are cognate and that doctrines are intended to be healing rather than harmful.
Our visions of God reflect our values, and they also shape what we believe is important. If we have a fundamental drive to be in harmony with the ultimate reality, as my Claremont professor David Griffin asserts, then the best form of alignment, insuring the happiest future, involves imitating the God we worship. Accordingly, tyrannical images of God reinforce tyrannical behaviors. Exclusionary, line-drawing images of God encourage separating the world into in and out, us and them, saved and damned. Coercive images of God have often been employed as the basis for coercion – if not the extermination - of non-believers into believing and the destruction of their civilizations in favor God’s chosen cultural order. Such visions lead to a God who hates more than loves, damns more than saves, and abandons more than welcomes. Surely, this is not the God of the lost sheep, lost coin, or lost child; the God who welcomed outsiders, traitors, and untouchables; the God who said “Forgive them” on the Cross.
Our visions of God have often exalted power over love. Many visions of God describe God’s relationship with the world as unilateral and coercive, often offering only one path to salvation. While “orthodox” believers spoke of God’s love and unmerited grace, the God they followed exhibited conditional love and partial grace. God loves you and forgives you, welcoming you into eternal life, provided you believe the right doctrines and practiced the correct lifestyle. Doubt, agnosticism, and disbelief, along with faithful practicing of another spiritual path, were equally punishable by death and torment. I recall a good example of this: a student at a university retreat I led during my tenure as Protestant Chaplain at Georgetown University, noted without a hint of regret: “My parents are good and generous people, but they aren’t Christians. If they don’t accept Jesus, they will go to hell and be here with Gandhi and Buddha and all the other good people who weren’t believers.” Every adolescent at one time or another wants to tell their parents to “go to hell,” but this pious young woman already knew that’s were her parents were headed! According to this student’s viewpoint, even a reprobate or mass murderer will receive her or his heavenly reward, if – upon their deathbed – they fall upon God’s mercy.
Our theology can be violent, and any theology that revels in God’s separation of saved and unsaved is inherently violent and untrustworthy. Unless we can trust that God is on our side in thick and thin, we cannot trust God’s benevolence during life’s challenges.
Conversely, images of God as love engender loving behaviors. If the ultimate reality, for example, the Christ described in Philippians 2:5-11, is relational, non-competitive, and loving, having the mind of Christ means to live out this came caring spirit. In Philippians 2, every knee bows out of admiration, gratitude, and love, not fear or compulsion.
Yes, we need an “alter” call. We need to affirm alternative visions of God that celebrate the universality of God’s love and revelation. Providence still is at work in the lives of the “elect,” and everyone is elect, the apple of God’s eye and the center of God’s love. A globally providential God inspires Mohammed, Buddha, and Buddha and enlightens faithful seekers of truth of all traditions and none at all. Let us give thanks to God who gives us new and lively images of spiritual transformation and who constantly invites us to expand the circle of grace to embrace diversity in all its wonder and beauty.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty four books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality in the Postmodern World.His most recent text isEmerging Process: Adventerous Theology for a Missional Church.He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He recently served as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures, workshops, and retreats. His latest book is Healing Marks: Healingand Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).